Lt. Col. Michael Lee Lanning reveals the little-known, critical, and heroic role African Americans played in the American Revolution. These soldiers served in integrated units, which didn't happen again until the Korean War, more than 150 years later.
At first, neither George Washington nor the Continental Congress approved of enlisting African Americans in the new army. Nevertheless, blacks—both slave and free—filled the ranks and served in all of the early battles. By the third year of the war, manpower shortages over came prejudices as both the militia and the Continental Army accepted blacks and integrated them into their ranks. Each state approved the integration of blacks differently, but even regiments in the South accepted African Americans in order to maintain their units' fighting strength. Black sailors also saw action in every major naval battle of the Revolution, including members of John Paul Jones's crew aboard the Bonhomme Richard. At least thirteen blacks served in the newly formed U.S. Marine Corps during the war.
The average length of time in service for African Americans during the Revolution was four and a half years—eight times longer than the average period for white soldiers.
Many African Americans, especially escaped slaves, joined British units in exchange for promised liberty. Hundreds served in Lord Dunmore's Loyalist Ethiopian Regiment under the banner "Liberty to Slaves." Other blacks fought in Spanish and French regiments that allied with the Americans against the British. Bravery among African Americans was common-place, as recognized by their commanders and state governments, and is evoked here by the stories of citizen Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre, militiaman Price Esterbrook at Lexington Green, soldier Salem Poor at Bunker Hill, and marine John Martin aboard the brig Reprisal.
In the words of the author, "The daily life of black soldiers, sailors, and marines in the Revolution differed little from that of their white comrades. Though prejudice and discrimination did not evaporate with the first shots at Lexington, black servicemen in the Revolution certainly experienced a marked increase in equality throughout the war. Ultimately, as in every armed conflict, soldiers in the trenches and sailors and marines in the forecastle judged men by their performance rather than the color of their skin as they fought for their country's liberty, their unit's pride, and their mutual survival."
Michael Lee Lanning is the author of The African-American Soldier: From Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell as well as ten other books on military history. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.